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Shishlov Shows Way to Democracy in Duma

DECEMBER 15 - 21 1997

IT HAS become conventional wisdom to write off the State Duma as ineffectual at best and obstructionist at worst. After all, the lower house of parliament is weak vis-a-vis the Kremlin, dominated by Communists and its sessions often resemble a theater of the absurd.

But one of the brightest spots on the St. Petersburg political scene has actually been the city's Duma delegation. Consider Alexander Shishlov, a first-term lawmaker from Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko party.

Shishlov has a habit of noticing when public officials play loose and fast with public trust. He then uses his good offices to make them behave.

Last fall Shishlov had a suspicion that there was something strange in the way that former mayor Anatoly Sobchak's City Hall was handing out state-owned apartments at bargain-basement prices.

After looking into the matter, Shishlov unveiled documents from the city's housing fund revealing that Sobchak sold off more than 100 state owned apartments at cut-rate prices, including many to political cronies, local newspaper editors and pop music stars. Shishlov estimated that the apartment sales cost the city $2 million in lost revenues.

Sobchak has defended his fire-sale as legal, citing a decree written and signed by himself that gave him sole discretion over the fate of city-owned real-estate while in office.

Meanwhile, due to an alleged "housing crisis," more than a million city residents on decade-long waiting lists for housing are languishing in decrepit communal flats or dormitories.

Late last year, the Legislative Assembly passed a law - sponsored by Shishlov - regulating the sale of state apartments and mandating that City Hall state publicly to whom they are selling to and for what reason.

This fall, Shishlov was at it again, discovering that Fund 2004, an organization created to push the city's failed Olympic bid, was trying to divert 64 billion rubles in federal funds earmarked for city improvements for its own purposes. Largely thanks to his work this misappropriation was nipped in the bud.

Shishlov is also super-attentive to St. Petersburg's needs when legislation hits the floor of the Duma, working closely with local lawmakers. I've lost count of the times I have heard the phrase: "Shishlov's amendment will help the city if it is passed."

And while he goes about his business without a lot of noise and fanfare, he usually gets results.

Such work by a lawmaker is an example of representative democracy at its best. It also shows that the Duma can be an important engine of democracy when its members put their constituents' interests first.

St Peterburg Times , DECEMBER 15 - 21 1997